Low Chicago – George RR Martin (ed)

low chicago cover

“It had been one hundred and forty-two years since John Nighthawk had been inside the Palmer House, and then it had been the earlier incarnation of the luxurious Chicago hotel, known simply as the Palmer.”

It seems very odd to jump into a series at book 25, but this isn’t the kind of story where that matters too much. Sure, I had to do a quick google for the underlying premise: an alien virus hits the Earth, and while most of the infected die, those that survive are altered. Known as the Wild Card event, most of those whose ‘cards turned’ become ‘jokers’ – cursed with some kind of abnormality, like the woman with rabbit ears. Some are ‘deuces’, granted low-level, party-trick kind of powers. But a very few are the ‘aces’, those with real superpowers.

The whole series has been collections of short stories, and this latest volume is no different. We start with a framing tale – very Canterbury Tales ūüėČ – of a high stakes poker game. Each player is allowed to take two bodyguards in with them, be that physical muscle or ace-skills, or both!

The human mutation premise isn’t exactly novel, but I think it’s a nice take on things here, feeling different enough from, say,¬†X-Men.

When something goes awry during the card game, it turns out that one of the superpowers in the room is the ability to send people to different time periods. So, with regular interludes back to our framing tale, we then get a series of stories written by different authors detailing the ‘adventures’ of one or more of the party, flung into the distant or recent past.

I’m not sure I would have noticed the different authors if it hadn’t been made clear at the start, but once pointed out then yes, I caught a few differences in writing styles. That works well, though, given the range of eras the stories are set in: Jurassic to 1980s, with stops at several quite famous events – and with a few famous faces, to boot!

I really enjoyed both the premise of the stories here, and the individual time travel tales. There were a few times when I thought, “This is probably a reference to a previous story”, but nothing to detract too much. If I did have a complaint, it’s that this book gives a bit of a glimpse at a clearly well-established universe, but we don’t get to spend a great deal of time with character development or deeper explanations.

Still, that just gives me an even bigger reason to check out the rest of the series!

NetGalley eARC: 432 pages / 7 short stories plus framing tale
First published: 2018
Series: Wild Cards book 25
Read from 3rd-10th June 2018

My rating: 8/10


Doctor Who: Myths and Legends – Richard Dinnick

Doctor Who Myths and Legends cover

“Heroes. Gods. Monsters. Time Lords.”

Amazingly, it’s been over a decade since Doctor Who made a triumphant return to the screen, becoming more popular than ever to the point where the recent sneak peak of the Christmas special, aired during BBC’s¬†Children in Need appeal, caused absolute squeee’ing overload on social media. If you’re finding it too hard to wait the a little over a month to go before the full episode airs on Christmas day, perhaps this book of short stories will fill the gap for you.

Myths and Legends is a collection of fourteen tales, giving a Gallifreyan twist to familiar stories from our own history: the Argonauts escaping from the Cyclops, for instance, or the Wooden Horse of Troy. Despite being a fan of Greek myths, I didn’t find it particularly easy to spot the links at times – the table of contents helpfully lists the inspirational tale –¬† which… I’m not sure, but is probably a good thing.

To be honest, some of the stories try a little too hard to fit a space-age tale into something written thousands of years ago. The Minotaur’s labyrinth, for instance, is rather shoehorned into a tale about the Racnoss, a spider-species that was featured in the 2006 Christmas special,¬†The Runaway Bride. Now, spiders and mazes are fine together, but here it just seemed rather a daft way to try and get your prey to where you’re about to eat them – hmm.

My other minor ‘hmm’ about this work is that it made me feel like I’m not a big enough geek. I’ve watched Dr Who since… oh, okay, maybe not give away my age ;)… since well before its modern regeneration, but I found myself wondering at times if I just don’t pay enough attention to get some of the winks and nods here. But then, after a few I found myself wondering why there weren’t more tie-ins to the series as shown on screen. With a title like this has, I suppose I expected more… specifics?

Overall, this is a perfectly adequate set of stories, but somehow didn’t quite hit the mark for me. Perhaps it’s the slightly written-for-youngers simplistic style, or simply a flaw in this reader and/or her expectations. Your mileage may vary, as they say, and if you do have a small TARDIS on your premises, chances are you’ll get more out of this than I did.

NetGalley eARC: 288 pages / 14 short stories
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 25th September – 13th November 2017

My rating: 6/10

Children of Thorns, Children of Water – Aliette de Bodard

“It was a large, magnificent room with intricate patterns of ivy branches on the tiles, and a large mirror above a marble fireplace, the mantlepiece crammed with curios from delicate silver bowls to Chinese blue-and-white porcelain figures: a clear statement of casual power, to leave so many riches where everyone could grab them.”

It would make sense to have read¬†House of Shattered Wings, the first book in the Dominion of the Fallen series, before¬†requesting this between-first-and-second-book short from NetGalley. But, I’d read the opening of the original, liked the premise, but been a little put off by the reviews, so what better way of giving the writing style and story elements a chance?

I love the premise here: in a futuristic yet olde-worlde Paris (huzzah for slightly different locations than the ‘norm’), the survivors of a¬†war in Heaven are divided into Houses vying for power¬†over the shattered city. Scavengers ‘loot’ the bodies of Fallen Angels – literally, as in, stripping the flesh off of fingers, to mine for magic. Ick.

Without wanting to give too much away – you might be more inclined to read things in the proper order, after all! – Children of Thorns¬†shows two¬†applicants to one of the great Houses, masquerading as ‘houseless’ ones to infiltrate a rival power. The application process is perhaps a little unusual, but when strange magical eddies start to swirl, the test¬†becomes more global…

I can see how this would lead into the next book, The House of Binding Thorns. Indeed, this was released as a bonus for pre-ordering the second installment, and was previously not available in any other way.

I was reasonably impressed. There’s a darkness here, and also enough of a difference from most fantasy-type fiction to pique my interest. I’m fully planning on allowing my to-read list to groan some more, and start back at the beginning!

NetGalley eARC: ~34 pages
First published: April 2017
Series: Dominion of the Fallen book 1.5
Read from 13th-15th April 2017

My rating: 7.5/10

The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories – various

There’s something entirely enticing about a themed short story collection, especially when the theme is one as intriguing as djinn (or jinn, or genies). Although I’m not overly familiar with most of the authors included here – bar Neil Gaiman, with an American Gods excerpt, Claire North, and KJ Parker – the range of approaches towards this shared theme would itself be worthy of the read. Luckily, you also get a bunch of really great stories!

My one complaint (let’s get it over with!) would be the limitations of the short story format: on more than one occasion I wanted the story to continue, or felt that it ended just a little too abruptly.

Otherwise, I loved the range here, from the very traditional through to myriad modern and even a sci-fi futurist twist on the old rub-a-lamp, get-three-wishes story. My favourite, Sami Shah’s Reap,¬†was actually very dark, combining the Middle Eastern myths with the more familiar modern view we tend to be shown by the media of the region, i.e. spy drones and terrorist surveillance. Not necessarily two things you might have put together, which makes for quite a gripping tale.

Not all of the stories are set in ‘traditional’ locales, but most are which gives a lovely exoticness (from my chilly Northern European perspective!) to the proceedings. I also really enjoyed the stories told from the djinn’s point of view – and more so when it wasn’t always obvious from the get-go. Djinn are eternal tricksters, after all!

Word of warning: this is not for children! At least two of the stories feature sexual content I’d suggest was at least 15+.

Overall, while a lot of fun to read, I think I appreciated this even more for the insight into writing styles and ideas. Recommended for both readers and writers!

NetGalley eARC: ~356 pages / 21 short stories (curated by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin)
First published: 14th March 2017
Series: none
Read from 7th- March 2017

My rating: 8/10

A Feast of Sorrows – Angela Slatter

“My father did not know that my mother knew about his other wives, but she did.”

I’ve said it before, but¬†the book world does seem rather overflowing these days with retellings of fairy tales, or fairy tale-esque stories. Luckily the latter category is far more interesting, and is largely where this book falls.

As the title suggests, these are rather downbeat stories. And gruesome! I know the original Grimm tales etc were far more brutal than the versions we tend to hear, but even at that this collection is dark – definitely not for children, with rape, betrayal, abandonment, murder – all the usual and more – going on! That said, there’s something satisfying when an evil sister or cheating husband gets their comeuppance, and that happens in a few of these stories.

I wasn’t massively impressed to start with – my first thought was rather that Ursula Vernon aka T.Kingfisher does this kind of thing far better, particularly as I’ve read her retelling of the Blackbeard story¬†so recently and I think I¬†prefer it to the version presented here, even though it’s got a nice twist.

However, after a slightly bumpy start I really started to enjoy A Feast of Sorrows, and settled into the rhythm of the author’s voice. The work becomes more original, but always with those dark and less-than-happy overtones. Another commonality to the stories – even before they start referencing each other in a shared universe kind of a way I largely liked – is that all of the leading cast are female. I don’t think I’d wholly spotted that until I was done, but indeed, this is a book of strong female characters with nicely three-dimensional personalities – hurrah!

By the end of the collection I was thoroughly enjoying it, although the¬†cross references to each other made it feel a bit like I was reading an episodic novel more than a collection of short stories – which is good and not great at the same time. It does mean that some of the tales blur into one another for me, so¬†I’m not sure I have a favourite. Perhaps the wonderfully titled¬†St Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls, which includes knowledge-stealing and assassination and some wonderfully nasty teachers!

Recommended? Yes indeed, although maybe not if you’re in need of cheering up!

NetGalley eARC: 299 pages / 14 short stories
First published: 4th October 2016
Series: short stories
Read from 3rd-10th September 2016

My rating: 7/10

Drowned Worlds – anthology

Short story collections, especially in the speculative fiction genres, can be difficult beasts. Drowned Worlds, however, gets past some of the limitations and trials by setting out a theme: what happens after the ice caps melt and sea levels rise?

An array of options are explored over the 15¬†short stories, from colonizing other planets to dystopian horrors to more or less life as we know it, with y’know, more water.

To be honest, most of the stories haven’t left great impressions individually, but¬†as part of a themed anthology, it’s the range of options and approaches that really gelled for me. In one story, scientists¬†make the ultimate sacrifice to save the species reliant on now-destroyed coral reef; in several,¬†tourists flock to the drowned cities of the past; and in one, the tourists come to a sticky end ūüėȬ†Ancient Inuit myths make an appearance, alongside new myths forming in the Arctic. We get glimpses of new kinds of living arrangements, from floating garbage islands to cities encircled by giant flood walls. Mostly, we also get to see a lot of humanity, changed or¬†not by the new state of the Earth.

I’d also suggest that by having this shared background, the accessibility of the stories was much increased. With spec fic, the short format often makes it difficult to get up to speed with the concept presented before the story is over. Here,¬†knowing¬†even just a little bit going in gave you that slice of background to get started.

My favourite story was actually the last, Catherynne Valente’s¬†The Future Is Blue. We are told that the narrator, a young woman, must allow people to spit on her, attack her, and call her names. The course of the story then jumps back¬†to her childhood on¬†a giant¬†floating island of garbage – a brilliantly sketched out¬†environment – to¬†explore the life people now lead as well as slowly revealing the cause of the narrator’s position. It’s not a cheery story, really, but the structure and build up to the reveal appealed to me.

Kindle: 289 pages / 15 stories
First published: 2016
Series: short story anthology
Read from 3rd-14th July 2016

My rating: 6/10

The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year volume 10 – various

Short story collections are tricky beasts to review, as you want to capture the whole book as well as the highs and lows of the individual stories. The speculative genre, too, is a tough one for the short format: great that you can explore ideas, briefly, but at the same time it can be hard to contain a huge chunk of imagination in short form, leaving the reader either a tantalising glimpse or just not enough immersion.

Fortunately, this lives up to its name of being a ‘best of’, and thus there are no turkeys here. Which isn’t to say I loved every story, but in terms of experiencing some fantastic writers and a wide variety of topics and styles, this hit lots of buttons.

We open with Neil Gaiman’s wonderful¬†Black Dog, which I’d read previously in his¬†Trigger Warnings¬†collection but is so bloomin’ brilliant that I happily read it again. Of course, not every story is going to come with the background of a full novel (American Gods ¬†which I am now itching to reread!) giving it roundness and weight,¬†which made it all the more difficult to get into the next few stories. There were several in a row which I found rather too bleak (e.g. Alastair Reynold’s A Murmuration)¬†and depressing (City of Ash by Paolo Bacigalupi) for me¬†– but these are relatively minor disgruntlements, of course! ūüôā One of the ‘problems’ – and joys – of collections like this is that it can offer things to suit many tastes.

As for my own taste, perhaps it should be called into question given that this year’s Nebula Award winner, Alyssa Wong’s¬†Hungary Daughters of Starving Mothers, is a notable inclusion here – and not one of my favourites!¬†That title goes to the penultimate tale,¬†The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman T Malik, which – possibly because it’s longer than many of the others – really does conjure up setting and emotion.

Other¬†tales that grabbed me include Catherynne Valente’s¬†The Lily and the Horn, briefly sketching a dark fantasy world where dinner parties stand in for war, Greg Bear’s mindbending take on quantum theory in The Machine Starts, and¬†The Deepwater Bride by Tamsyn Muir, which put me in mind of Charles Stross meets Neil Gaiman – excellent mix! Ian McDonald’s¬†Bontanic Veneris surely needs a stand-alone volume displaying some of the fantastical – well, ok, impossible! – papercut botanical drawings used so effectively to intertwine with his story, told with remarkable non-straightforwardness for the short format.

It’s getting difficult not to mention more – all – of the tales here, containing such fantastical elements as¬†talking rhinos, possessed Christmas trees, as well as more ‘commonplace’ themes such as first contact, AIs, and colonising other planets.

Whatever your taste in the ‘out there’, there’s something here to appeal. The short story format doesn’t always get much love, but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing what a range of talented authors could offer in such contrained packages.

NetGalley eARC: 624 pages / 27 stories
First published: 2016
Series: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, volume 10
Read from 14th May Р15th June 2016

My rating: 8/10